The story takes place in an alternate 1985, where Richard Nixon is still president and superheroes have been outlawed, save for a select few who give the United States an advantage in fighting the Cold War. One of those exceptions, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is brutally murdered in the opening scene. A former colleague known as Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) sees the beginnings of a sinister plot to eliminate all the other crimefighters. He makes his way around, visiting former members of the group to issue a warning. They scoff at him, but before long they are all having misfortunes visited upon them. Someone ties to assassinate Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), a.k.a. Ozymandias, who hung up his cape and became a billionaire by capitalizing on his former image. Rorschach himself is framed for a crime he didn't commit and sent to prison.
Then there's Jon Osterman, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) who was accidentally zapped with atomic rays and turned into a big blue creature able to move particles with his mind; he exiles himself to Mars after being accused of spreading cancer. The only person who might be able to lure him back to Earth is Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), his sort-of girlfriend. The government wants to keep Dr. Manhattan happy - his allegiance to America makes the Soviets nervous - and has therefore coerced her into staying in the relationship, despite her growing attraction to Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), yet another superhero who has grown impotent both physically and emotionally since hanging up his cape.
That's the outward story. Watchmen - the book and the movie - take frequent digressions to explore the real ideas, namely the fallibility (and questionable sanity) of people who put on funny costumes to fight crime. These are characters who unanimously have personality disorders: some are vain, others insecure, still others bordering on psychopathic. Thematically, the story addresses global conflict, the balance between good and evil, what it really means to be a savior, and at what cost humanity deserves to be saved. Heady stuff, for sure.
My biggest fear about the Watchmen movie was that it would somehow be simplified or dumbed down. Thankfully, it hasn't been. Director Zack Snyder also made 300, another adaptation of a popular graphic novel. What I like about Snyder is that he's a fanboy himself. A lot of times when you hear about a beloved property being turned into a film, it's easy to worry -for good reason - that Hollywood will screw it up. When Zack Snyder's name is attached, you at least know that the movie version will be made by someone who fundamentally gets it. Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse have retained all the depth and complexity of the source material. Certainly, not everything can be included, and the film does away with some of the peripheral stuff that added flavor but wasn't necessary for the move to the big screen. (Bye, bye newsstand guy and "Tales of the Black Freighter.") Watchmen makes for kind of an interesting companion piece to last summer's The Dark Knight in that both are comic book movies that elevate the art form in part by daring to present challenging themes that go beyond the basic "hero versus villain." The two pictures additionally share an admirable willingness to end on a morally ambiguous note.
Snyder is very faithful to the vision of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, yet it goes beyond simply filming what's on the page. The director finds a way to transfer the energy and motion of the comic to the screen, while adding little touches that are distinctly his own, such as the excellent opening credit sequence, set to Bob Dylan's "The Times Are A-Changing," that stylishly compacts some of the back story into just a few minutes. Many of the fight scenes are also a little longer here, giving Snyder a chance to riff on material from the book. The only genuine difference is the ending, which has been altered slightly, apparently because the original grand finale might be considered insensitive post-9/11. But even the new ending is true to the novel's intention, as it guides the plot to the same thematic destination.
Watchmen takes time to explore the histories of all its characters. The actors chosen may not be the biggest "stars," but they are all interesting performers who bring something compelling to the roles. This is especially true of Jackie Earle Haley, who plays Rorschach, a character whose intense morality is occasionally veiled behind a nihilistic personality. Haley is perhaps not the first person who springs to mind for this part, yet he captures the moody, uncompromising spirit of the character. I also really liked Billy Crudup as the conflicted Dr. Manhattan. This is potentially the most difficult of the Watchmen to play, as he's big, blue, existential-minded, and often naked. Crudup really does a great job portraying the ethereal being who tries to find a place in a cosmos that barely makes sense to him.
Any novel as obsessed-upon as Watchmen is doubtlessly going to inspire different views from fans when it jumps to the big screen. Some will think the movie is a brilliant rendering of the book; others will feel it misses the mark. That's just because different folks experienced the original incarnation of the story in different ways or saw different things in it. (Newcomers will either really dig the deconstruction of the superhero mythos or reject it outright.) All I can say is that the tone, feel, and pace of the movie matches almost perfectly what I envisioned when I read this tale on the page. As an admitted fanboy, I think they got it exactly right. I walked out of the theater completely satisfied. The film has a stunning look, abundant intelligence, and a blessed retention of most of the ideas that made the graphic novel a classic in its genre.
Watchmen gave me a big old nerd-gasm.
( out of four)
Watchmen is one of my favorite movies of 2009 (in case you couldn't tell), and it comes to DVD and Blu-Ray on July 21. You can buy a single disc version of the theatrical cut of the movie, but I highly recommend the 2-disc director's cut version. Zack Snyder's 3-hour-and-8-minute cut is nothing less than exquisite, taking an already great movie and adding even more depth and scope.
There are some pretty substantial additions to the director's cut. The flashback sequence detailing Jon Osterman's transformation into Dr. Manhattan is greatly expanded, bringing his story arc into greater focus. Rorschach's backstory is longer as well. Another major addition is a powerfully-filmed sequence that shows the fate of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl. There's even more of Richard Nixon. These scenes, deleted from the theatrical cut, are all welcome here. You'll find other new moments throughout, but these are the most significant.
The second disc in the set contains the bonus features, which begin with "The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics," an outstanding 30-minute documentary that recounts how Watchmen revolutionized the comics world and how its effect is still felt today. Co-creator Dave Gibbons appears to talk about the book, as do various DC staffers and members of the film production. This is a terrific history of an important piece of modern literature.
Next up are "Watchmen: Video Journals," a series of 11 mini-docs (each about 3-5 minutes in length) that detail various elements of the production. The set and costume designers talk about how they tried to stay faithful to the look of the graphic novel. We see how Nite Owl's ship was constructed, and how Dr. Manhattan was brought to life. (Actor Billy Crudup wore a special motion capture suit with LED lights; his movements were fed into a computer.) Most interesting, to me, was the section on how Rorschach's mask was created.
Rounding out the DVD is the music video for the My Chemical Romance remake of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Road," which plays over the movie's end credits. A digital copy of the movie in included as well.
The double-disc Watchmen set is definitely a great addition to any comic lover's collection. Die-hard fans should be aware, however, that an insert inside the box informs us that a super-deluxe 5-disc version will be released in December. It will feature audio commentary from Zack Snyder, as well as the "Under the Hood" feature that was previously released to DVD. The animated "Tales of the Black Freighter," also previously released on disc, will be edited into the film itself.
Watchmen is rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes.
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